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Commentary Abortion

U.S. Anti-Abortion Policies Endanger Lives Worldwide. Here’s My Plan to End That.

Jan Schakowsky

The racist Helms Amendment effectively allows our country to control the health care and bodily autonomy of Black and brown people around the world.

We are living through one of the most turbulent moments of our nation’s history. Some of the challenges we face are new: a pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus, and a president who refuses to lead us through this global health crisis. Other issues have been with us for a long time: systemic racism in every part of our society, extreme socioeconomic inequalities made worse by the current recession, and a consistent and vicious attack on reproductive health care in the states and in our courts.

But what’s special about this moment is that people across the country seem to be actually coming together and doing something about it. Congress must do its part by listening to the voices of our constituents and joining in that fight. That’s why I am introducing the “Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act of 2020” to finally repeal the Helms Amendment.

Since 1973, the Helms Amendment has prohibited any U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning” and has acted as a total ban on U.S. foreign aid being used for any abortion services. It forces providers to distinguish between abortion and all other health services: meaning only those with the means to pay out of pocket can access essential abortion care, and abortion is further stigmatized as “illegitimate” health care. In practice, the Helms Amendment reduces the availability of safe, legal abortion, denies health-care providers lifesaving equipment and training, and leads to the unwarranted censoring of critical health information and education worldwide.

Most importantly, the Helms Amendment is a policy deeply rooted in racism.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Its author, former Sen. Jesse Helms, made no secret of his racist views. The Helms Amendment effectively allows the United States to control the health care and bodily autonomy of Black and brown people around the world. It imposes our arbitrary and medically unnecessary abortion restrictions on international communities, hinders billions of individuals from being able to exercise their reproductive rights, and deprives them of the care they want and need. Just like the Hyde Amendment, the Helms Amendment puts reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for women of color in order to advance a conservative political agenda. Both amendments must fall in order for us to realize any vision of health equity and reproductive justice.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made racial, gender, and health inequities even more glaring, and we know that women and girls have been disproportionately affected. The Guttmacher Institute published a commentary in the journal of International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health suggesting that sexual and reproductive health outcomes in low-and middle-income countries will be severely impacted by even a modest coronavirus-related decline in access to health care.

Guttmacher’s findings are staggering. A 10 percent decrease in sexual and reproductive health-care services in low- and middle-income countries would result in an additional 49 million women who can’t access modern contraception; an additional 15 million unintended pregnancies; an additional 28,000 maternal deaths; an additional 168,000 newborn deaths; and an additional three million unsafe abortions, resulting in 1,000 additional maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions.

As the largest government funder of global health, including family planning and reproductive health services, the United States should be stepping up and doing everything we can to prevent these outcomes. But instead we have archaic language that creates an arbitrary line between abortion and all other health-care services, limiting access to critical care. My new bill would allow us to use U.S. foreign assistance to provide access to high-quality, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health-care services for all people, which includes safe, legal, and accessible abortion.

I am grateful that my sisters Reps. Nita Lowey, Barbara Lee, Jackie Speier, Ayanna Pressley, Diana DeGette, and Norma Torres have joined me as original cosponsors of the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act. We are listening to our constituents who have taken to the streets to demand more just federal policy, and I know there is ample support inside and outside of Congress for this legislation.

If we are serious about racial justice and expanding abortion access for everyone, then we must repeal the Helms Amendment. This racist policy has been the status quo for far too long, and we must abolish it to achieve reproductive and health equity worldwide.

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